Coastal Turkey: Sun and sea guaranteed

Linda Cookson seeks out an ancient maritime kingdom where the long dead co-exist with the living.

My first crack at surfing the net for references to Lycia, the ancient maritime kingdom located on what is now the southwest coast of Turkey, threw up a flurry of websites devoted to an ambient rock band of the same name. ("Ambient rock band?" said my partner. "Sounds like a crossword clue.") Thereafter, though, things got decidedly more interesting. The more I scrolled, the more fascinated I became to discover what a treasure trove of tombs and monuments, secret caves and sunken cities awaited us ­ all in an area of stunning natural beauty that has become readily accessible to visitors only since the asphalting of the region's coastal roads in the 1980s.

My first crack at surfing the net for references to Lycia, the ancient maritime kingdom located on what is now the southwest coast of Turkey, threw up a flurry of websites devoted to an ambient rock band of the same name. ("Ambient rock band?" said my partner. "Sounds like a crossword clue.") Thereafter, though, things got decidedly more interesting. The more I scrolled, the more fascinated I became to discover what a treasure trove of tombs and monuments, secret caves and sunken cities awaited us ­ all in an area of stunning natural beauty that has become readily accessible to visitors only since the asphalting of the region's coastal roads in the 1980s.

The Lycians, who came originally from Crete, first came to prominence in the 8th century BC (although references to them go back 500 years earlier). A proud and highly civilised people, they continued to thrive in relative independence, even under successive conquerors, until Lycia finally became a Roman province. Nowadays, the "Lycian" region of Turkey can loosely be defined as the stretch of the Mediterranean seaboard that runs from Fethiye in the west towards Antalya in the east ­ a spectacularly beautiful and rugged coastline, etched into the ridges of the Taurus mountains.

We chose Kalkan, a small resort midway along the coast, as our base in the region. Formerly a fishing village, with pretty bougainvillea-covered terraces and an attractive harbour, Kalkan is not a completely unspoilt location: the original Ottoman houses that line the village's narrow alleys are now given over almost entirely to restaurants and boutiques. But it's still a very pleasant spot and has a comfortable, friendly atmosphere.

It also has the tradition of haphazard hospitality that characterises rural Turkey at its loveliest. The most memorable meal of our stay took place when we hired a boat to cross Kalkan bay, scrambled up some rocks, and fetched up at the marvellously makeshift Kocakaya Restaurant. We ate chicken and chips in a tree house, and played backgammon with Veli the fisherman while his 80 year-old father kept the sandflies at bay with a pink plastic fly-swatter. This wonderful family must surely be the most optimistic restaurateurs in Turkey. The restaurant is almost impossible to find, the food is cooked on an open fire, and the sign advertising the enterprise faces straight out to sea.

Kalkan's central position is perfect for exploring the Lycian coast. By the end of our week there, we'd already toured much of the area's western section under our own steam, visiting a number of archeological sites, including the ancient capital city of Xanthos. We'd also spent time at the ruins of Patara, 45 minutes from Kalkan and birthplace of the 4th-century bishop who was to become best known as Father Christmas. Only five-minutes from the ruins in a dolmus ­ a shared taxi ­ is a spectacular 12 mile golden beach. Arguably the best beach in the whole of Turkey, it's protected from development by the happy chance of being a breeding ground for the loggerhead turtle.

That still left us with eastern Lycia to explore ­ which is when Ahmet, a local driver with perfect English, a New York Yankees baseball cap and a mobile phone that played the James Bond theme tune, volunteered to act as our guide for a day. This trip was to prove the highlight of the visit. Off we roared eastwards, along a breathtaking coastal highway. And before you could say "Sarcophagus!" we were in Kas, a delightful little harbour town some 17 miles from Kalkan.

The Lycians were pretty hot on what's rather coyly known as "funerary architecture", and sarcophagi are, quite literally, a common or garden sight in the region. It's quite disconcerting to see bits of broken stone coffin dating back nearly 3,000 years being cheerfully utilised as geranium pots or litter bins. Kas, site of the ancient Lycian port of Antiphellos, is vivid testimony to this co-existence of the living with the dead. Colourful warrens of cobbled streets ­ festooned with vines, and vibrant with open-air carpet stalls and timbered shops selling ceramics and jewellery ­ all wind up towards a large sarcophagus, still complete with the massive stone base and heavy lid. And, set vertically on a sheer rock wall above the town, a collection of cliff tombs is illuminated at night so that the long-dead still seem to stand guard over the town's harbour like ghost watchmen.

Forty-five minutes after leaving Kas, travelling inland through densely wooded countryside and a fertile river delta, we came to the ruins of the former Roman city of Myra ­ site of a magnificent necropolis of ornate tombs excavated directly out of a towering rock face and carved to resemble houses. This is where the Lycians buried their wealthy dead. Intricately detailed images of aristocratic life ­ from a family feast to a deathbed scene ­ are etched into the stone surrounds and connecting passageways (cut, one assumes, to facilitate post mortem trysts). It's a breathtaking sight ­ even if, by midday, it gets hard to avoid the crowds.

From Myra, we headed back towards the coast to the idyllic waterfront village of Ucagiz, a happily bustling little community where goats and chickens pick their way through heaps of fishing nets, and where sacks of carob beans spill out over shop doorways. Here, glass-bottomed boats take you out over submerged Lycian tombs towards the nearby island of Kekova. Along its coast, the ruins of the Batik Sehir ­ a sunken Byzantine city drowned by an earthquake ­ are clearly visible both above and below the waterline.

As you cross the water towards Kekova, you pass the impossibly pretty village of Kale ("castle" in Turkish) ­ a cluster of 50 or so houses built on the site of ancient Simena. Accessible only by boat, Kale is topped by a fairytale fortress. Sleepy, charming and utterly unspoiled, it's a perfect place for a romantic retreat. Wandering around the harbourside, reflecting on the absence of commercialism, I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder. "Do you want to buy...?" began a voice. My heart sank. Then I turned round, and everything was all right again. An elderly weathered face broke into an enormous smile. "You want to buy a child?" he said, patting the head of the little granddaughter giggling beside him. "She very naughty."

Ahmet smiled proudly. "Nice people," he said. And that's what I'll remember best of all about the Lycians.

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